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£72                                                                                                            B- POLEVOI
the hospital, of how their particular units would greet
them when they returned, and what activities lay ahead.
All of them longed for the army life they had grown
accustomed to, and their hands itched, as it were, in
their eager desire to be out of the hospital in time to
take part in the new offensive, which could be felt in
the air like an impending storm and could be guessed
from the calm that had suddenly descended upon the
There was nothing unusual in a soldier returning to
active service from the hospital, but for Meresyev it be-
came a problem: would skill and training compensate
for the absence of feet; would he be able to get into the
cockpit of a fighter plane again? He strove towards his
goal with ever-increasing zeal and determination. Having
gradually increased the time, he now exercised his legs
and did training exercises—general gymnastics—for two
hours every morning and evening. But even this seemed
not enough to him. He began to do his exercises in the
afternoon. Looking at him sideways with a merry, mock-
ing twinkle in his eyes, Struchkov would announce, like
a showman:
"And now, citizens, you will see the riddle of nature,
the great shaman, Alexei Meresyev, who has no equal
in the forests of Siberia, show you his bundle of tricks."
There was, indeed, something in the exercises, that he
performed with such fanatical fervour, that made Alexei
resemble a shaman. It was so hard to watch the endless
bending of the body backward and forward and from
side to side and the exercises for the neck and arms which
he performed so resolutely and with the regularity of a
swinging pendulum, that while he was thus engaged his
wardmates who were able to walk left the room to roam
about the corridor; and bed-ridden Struchkov pulled his
blanket over his head and tried to fall asleep. Nobody in
the ward believed, of course, that it was possible for a
man with no feet to fly, but their wardmate's persever-
ance won their respect and, perhaps, their reverence,
which they concealed with quips and jests.
The fractures in Struchkov's knee-caps proved to be
more serious than was at first supposed. They healed
slowly, his legs were still in splints, and although there